The Enemy Within
In the field of linguistics there are two distinct camps. There are the prescriptivists, who maintain that there are rules about how words are properly spelled and used, and there are descriptivists, who document the ever-evolving state of language, keeping up with how words are currently being used and embracing these changes. It would hardly strain the mind to guess which of the two camps is the one in which I’ve permanently pitched my tent.
I agree that language evolves. Sometimes it does so for good reasons and therefore legitimately. I’m firmly in favor of conscious, thoughtful changes, such as the sensible switch from “chairman” to “chairperson” or the coining of words like “faxing” to accommodate new inventions. “Multitasking” is a convenient replacement for “doing several things at once.” And I’m sure “dogwalker” wasn’t a word until it was a profession. Now, we need it.
But, particularly in this age of limitless entitlement to individualized beliefs untethered by facts, in which everyone feels his uninformed opinion is just as valid as an expert one, the so-called “evolution” of language is a slippery slope . . . or maybe a sloppery slip (you have to check with the descriptivists for the latest mutation).
It seems not so very long ago that the dictionary—that great, regal tome that dominated every household's bookshelf, so revered for its perfectionism and detailed accuracy—was considered the ultimate resource on such matters. Just as the encyclopedia could be counted on to accurately list each of the primary exports of Guam, the dictionary could reliably confirm or refute one's spelling and/or usage.
But what many don't realize is that some dictionaries (including the oft-quoted Webster’s) are curated by nothing but smug and unrepentant descriptivists. That may have been less problematic back when more people aspired to accuracy. But today, if an error is repeated often enough by this generation that believes they have a right to spell and use words however they like, it will make its way onto those once-hallowed pages. The heathen descriptivists will even allow into their officially approved lexicon erroneous—even antonymous—definitions, so long as they’ve become common enough to be considered part of the language as it is currently spoken.
We have, for example, been misusing the word “hopefully” for quite some time. Its legitimate meaning is “in a hopeful manner” or “with hope” ("Bernice looked hopefully at the tray of deserts.") These days, it is also used to mean “one hopes” ("Hopefully the goulash I just ate wasn't spoiled.") It’s used that way so commonly, in fact, that I’ve done so myself. That doesn’t make it correct. A prescriptivist dictionary would have told us that in no uncertain terms. But the reckless ruffians at Merriam-Webster’s have added the improper definition, declaring, “The ‘it is hoped’ sense of hopefully is entirely standard.” Standard, is it? So saith Webster’s.
This whole mess is largely the fault of Phillip Gove, the managing editor of Webster's Third from 1950 to 1952, general editor from 1952 to 1960, and editor-in-chief from 1960 until his retirement. (See “The Story Behind the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever.”) He was a filthy descriptivist to the core, and he didn’t even try to hide it.
And now it’s come to this. Not long ago, Webster’s accepted “irregardless”—a non-word which we who love accuracy have often mocked people for using—and gave it the undeserved status of appearing in the dictionary, simply because it’s been around since 1795. Webster’s has also legitimized the use of “literally” to mean “virtually”—its very opposite. And you know how I feel about that.
So now, not only can people use these words incorrectly, they can also go to the dictionary to back up their misuse. Swell.
And that’s not all. Merriam-Webster just recently added five hundred and thirty-five new entries, including “stan” (“an extremely or excessively enthusiastic and devoted fan”) and “finna” (“an informal pronunciation spelling of ‘fixing to’ do something...”)—two words that would be perfectly suited to any number of slang dictionaries, but have no business being included to any sort of formal listing.
So yes, language evolves. It also devolves. And as it is with so many things in this warped world of ours, it seems the citizenry is all for the trend that heads in the wrong direction.
I’d hoped to close this tirade with a supporting quote from the man whose name is on the book, Noah Webster. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered this:
There iz no alternativ. Every possible reezon that could ever be offered for altering the spelling of wurds, stil exists in full force; and if a gradual reform should not be made in our language, it wil proov that we are less under the influence of reezon than our ancestors. —Noah Webster
That filthy rotten stinking descriptivist—he’s dead to me. Literally.